Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was not thinking of Ronald Wilson Reagan when hewrote:
So when a great man dies,
For years beyond our ken,
The light he leaves behind him lies,
Upon the paths of men.
But in spirit that noble poet might have been. Surely American history has seen few leaders so humble, so serving — and with such a great sense of humor. Because the late President was “a great man,” his light will linger long.
What, then, of the generously intended rash of proposals that this, that, the Pentagon or some additional building be named after him? Let’s keep calm, deliberate and (almost un-American though the characteristic is) patient. A powerful argument may be made that too much is named too soon after too many.
The Roman Catholic Church, with very infrequent exception, ordinarily does not consider sainthood for one deceased less than fifty years. Whether fifty, longer or a little less, what is lost to memory or to history if there is pause in naming buildings, bridges, roads, whatever, after a deceased?
Think of all the federal courthouses named after Senators, Representatives, a few even after federal judges, whose memory would be lost — sometimes deservedly lost — to the public but for the name emblazoned on the structure. It may be that “pride goeth not before the fall” because many in Congress legislate their own names on buildings, roads, bridges and the like and then continue, memorialized in marble or concrete or mud — er, pavement, to run for re-election, hoping vanity and voter credulity will catapult them into re-election. One wouldn’t want to focus upon a particular place but maybe you have observed the coincidence of federal (meaning mostly non-West Virginian) taxpayer money expended in West Virginia and the frequency of [Robert C.] Byrd-this and Byrd-that in the State.
Until more recently Members of Congress have been more reticent — modest maybe? — to name things after their colleagues and themselves, much less to do so while the honoree was still alive or only recently deceased. The late Robert L. Doughton (pronounced “Doubt – un”), of North Carolina, served many years with distinction in the House, including the chairmanship of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Although nicknamed “Muley” because he was said to be stubborn, he was popular. Some fifty years ago he announced his retirement. Various Democratic colleagues proposed naming the Blue Ridge Parkway after him. Congress was a much smaller institution then, the entire population — Senators, Representatives, staff — less than that of the present House of Representatives aggregation alone. People knew one another. Not every proposal was treated with formality. Before the Doughton proposal made it to the Floor, a gentle chorus of Congressmen in the Republican Cloakroom (a meeting room adjacent to the House Floor) sang an improvised ditty, the refrain of which was ” . . . the Doubt — un Mountains of Virginia . . .” The proposal was pulled.
It should be honor enough that a Senator or Representative many times is re-elected and retires or dies after a distinguished career. In the bigger milieu, history, although seldom unitary in evaluation, will remember the President or other significant dignitary if he is worthy of remembrance. Would many informed people want the Millard Fillmore or James Buchanan Memorial on the Mall in Washington? The [Thomas] Woodrow Wilson Department of State? The Abe Fortas United States Supreme Court? The Warren Gamaliel Harding, Harry M. Daugherty or J. Howard McGrath Department of Justice?
Few people have a higher opinion than I of our late 40th President. Already a major federal building and Washington Airport (actually in Arlington, Virginia and theretofore inaccurately named “National” and before that, at a nearby Arlington site, prematurely named “Herbert Hoover”) are named Reagan. Let’s pause. Years hence, I, for one, do not doubt that objective historians — no, they’re not all liberal sycophants — will recognize the Reagan galaxy of inspiration and achievement. That will be time enough to name something more.
Meantime, let’s forego the ongoing onslaught of buildings, bridges, roads and whatever else is available named by politicians for politicians – or even by politicians for statesmen.
History will accord the meritorious their due. Unless the end of the world is near there will be adequate time for naming. If the end is near it won’t matter.
So, let’s take a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway, in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The spirit of Muley won’t mind.